All great music requires a little grit in the oyster, a little pain from which the good stuff flows. In the case of Mark “E” Everett, leader and sole permanent member of the stoical Los Angeles band Eels, you have to wonder if he’s been over-blessed with inspiration.
Everett grew up in Virginia, the son of a genius physicist who came up with the “Many Worlds” theory which provides a sound mathematical argument for the existence of a multiverse of alternate realities. But Hugh Everett III was a heavy drinker and a distant man, and one day in 1982 E found him dead of a heart attack at home. As he attempted in vain to resuscitate his father he realised that this was probably the first time they had touched since E was a baby. Not long afterwards, E’s beloved sister committed suicide, brought down by mental illness and drug abuse. Then an aggressive cancer quickly killed his mother, leaving E a family of one.
These and other traumas – the plane that crashed on their neighbourhood when E was a child, the cousin and her husband who died in the airliner that hit the Pentagon on 9/11 – would give anyone a free pass to ball up and hide away from the world, or at least make music too filled with pain to listen to. The surprise with E is that he has turned these experiences into grimly life-affirming adult rock music, laced with defiance and black humour. He’s also written a family memoir Things The Grandchildren Should Know, which makes most rock autobiographies seem hopelessly feeble, and presented a BBC documentary about his father’s theories, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives.
This month, E releases his 11th album as Eels. Titled with typical mordant humour, The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett, it deals with the aftermath of a failed romantic relationship as it relates to the grown man rather than the callow twenty-something. In songs like “Series of Misunderstandings” and “Mistakes of My Youth” the singer shows himself no particular mercy – but the overall effect is oddly hopeful. Like the best Eels records it is the kind you discover by mistake and then can’t do without.
When I first met E, in Los Feliz, Los Angeles back in 2005, he was married to a Russian dentist and looking after his dog, Bobby Jr, a characterful mutt with a backwards front leg who is a totem to Eels fans all over the world. The Russian dentist is now history but Bobby Jr is still around. There’s a moral there somewhere.
How are you, E, and where are you calling from?
“I’m not bad. I’m in LA. Not far from where my dog threw up on your shoes.
OK, your starter for one: explain Eels to someone who has never encountered them before…
“It’s a tough one because we’ve always been a little under the radar, and I’m used to that. If I go to a new dentist they’ll say, ‘Hey, what kind of music do you play?’ and I’m already stumped. It’s amazing to me that people have stuck with us for so long because I don’t know how to categorise us. I guess you could say we are what they now call a mash-up. Sometimes we rock and sometimes we roll. Fitting it all together is what’s interesting. In rock’n’roll, the “and” is the tricky part.”
Judging by The Cautionary Tales of Mark Everett it sounds like you’ve been through the emotional mill since Wonderful, Glorious came out…
“The background to this record was I blew it – I made a mess of a relationship and I didn’t get a second chance. There was a lot of remorse on my part, and that’s what this album is about. We actually made a version of this record before the last one that came out, Wonderful, Glorious, but there was something not right about it, so we put it on the shelf. Afterwards, I realised that I’d written a lot of songs pointing the finger at other people and not enough pointing the finger at me. So we changed a lot of it and it became a different, better record, about taking responsibility. It leads up to the hopeful idea that you can get yourself to a better place. I wouldn’t put the record out if it didn’t have that point to it. These subjects become more intense when you’re an older, divorced guy – and especially someone like me who’s been singularly focused on work for 22 years now. I’ve created this really unbalanced life for myself! But, you know, the work is the good part.”
Do you ever think it’s time life stopped dumping on you?
“Actually I don’t, because although I’ve had some miserable things happen to me I’ve had some really, really great times too. So much of my life is a miracle that I still can’t get over it. I never dreamed I’d get to make one record let alone, what is it now, 11? It’s crazy. For me to be able to make a living from it is incredible. OK, there have been sad things happen in my life but it’s kind of missing the point to say, ‘Hey, here’s that sad guy’ because I try to write songs with the aim of getting to a better place. That whole don’t-show-your-emotions thing is silly anyway. Why should it only be teenagers and people in their twenties who think about this stuff? It’s always been a theory of mine that we’re popular in England because of the stiff upper lip. Maybe they’re relieved that someone is emoting on their behalf. Or perhaps there’s a natural lowering of testosterone at a certain age that just hasn’t happened to me yet? [laughs]”
You made a pretty convincing and hilarious anti-gun country song called “Cold Dead Hand” with Jim Carrey last year. Ever thought of going country for real?
“That was a pretty funny song that Jim wrote with a very obvious point, so we didn’t want it to be a parody. It was pretty good, I thought. A country album has been on my list for some time. There’s a lot of country influences that creep into our music. We call the pedal-steel ‘The Sad Machine’. Can’t get enough of that.”
You’ve had a ‘Great American Beard’ since long before the “urban woodsman” thing appeared...
“Yeah and it’s no fun any more! I enjoyed it when I first grew the big giant beard in 2001. Nobody recognised me and everybody thought I was a terrorist. I just wanted to see what it came out like – let’s see how much testosterone I’ve got. And it shocked me. Every man wants to see, don’t they? You can’t go through life without testing the possibilities. But now everyone’s got them, even the sports guys. Basketball players and football players have these giant beards now! Once those guys start doing it, I’m out.”
So the beard is coming off?
“Let’s not be hasty now.”
You made a documentary for the BBC about your physicist father, Hugh, and his Many Worlds theory. If every choice we make creates an entire new universe, did that make you think differently about your own life?
“The biggest change that film made in me was that it made me understand my father in a whole different light. It led to me being able to forgive him his shortcomings. It was such a great experience to understand why he ended up the way he did. If you spend your days thinking of the biggest subjects possible, the nature of the universe and reality, and then you’re brushed under the carpet by the physics establishment and not taken seriously – even though you know you’re right – then it’s going to affect you. I felt I understood him better afterwards.”
You’re one of rock’n’roll’s few long-time dog- owners. How is Bobby Junior and how does man’s best friend deal with your touring absences? Do you think he misses you?
“He’s great, actually. He’s getting up there in years but he's currently experiencing a second puppyhood. He’s had a rare burst of late-in-life energy. When you go on tour it’s hard to be apart from your dog for a few months. When I come back he’ll totally ice me, turn his back and be very cold to me. You have to win their love back. It can take weeks. But I’m used to it. Bobby Jr has an amazing life, actually, especially when I’m away. We should all be so lucky.”
Last year you told Esquire that you were going to visit John Lennon’s house in Liverpool when you played there. How did that go?
“It was great! I really loved it – although I know so much about John Lennon now that there weren’t too many surprises. I basically knew the layout of the house in my mind, which may or may not be creepy. It was great to be on such hallowed ground. The surprise is, it’s a nice neighbourhood. It’s not rough like where Ringo lived. There’s a picture on our Facebook of me sitting on John Lennon’s actual bed. And of course I had to be a dick and play a Rolling Stones song…”
The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett is released on 21 April. Eels play the Royal Albert Hall on 30 June
This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our new iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.